Jacob Lawrence was a painter, but he was also a storyteller of the first order. In his 1941 masterwork, “Migration Series,” Lawrence (1917-2000) unspools one of the foundational narratives of the modern United States: the journey undertaken by some 6 million African Americans over the first half of the 20th century, which took them out of the Jim Crow South in search of better lives in the cities of the North. It is now on view in its 60-piece entirety at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the centerpiece of an illuminating show called “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series.” (If you can’t get there, the show’s excellent website reproduces the series in its entirety.)
The movement of humanity that came to be known as the Great Migration was a seismic population shift that profoundly shaped American cities and American culture, even as it transformed the lives of the individuals who made the trip. Lawrence himself was a part of the story he tells, born in 1917 to parents who traveled north. His mother, who did domestic work, came from Virginia. His father, a cook on the railroad, was from South Carolina. Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but the family soon moved to Easton, Pennsylvania and then Philadelphia, before ending up in Harlem in 1930.
It was there that the young Lawrence was first exposed to the intense, vibrant arts scene that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. He blossomed early in this environment, taking black history and the daily life of ordinary African Americans as his subject from the beginning. His first major work was a series of paintings documenting the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, the successful rebellion of slaves in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. By 1940, when Lawrence began painting the Migration Series, he had already won wide acclaim for series on the lives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
In the Great Migration, he found the subject that brought all his talents to bear, resulting in a visual chronicle that relates its subject with a spare, gripping poignancy and a thrilling sensation of forward motion. When the show went up at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in 1941, it was a groundbreaking event, marking the first time a black artist had been represented by a New York gallery.
The Migration Series consists of 60 tempera panels in all, hung together for the first time at MoMA in 20 years. (In an arrangement that seems like its own wrenching separation, the even-numbered panels since 1942 have been part of MoMA’s permanent collection, while the odd-numbered panels belong to the Phillips Collection. They are only periodically reunited.) The paintings are a uniform 12 by 18 inches in size, hung at eye level in chronological order around the exhibit’s opening gallery. Each one bears a caption written by the artist. Walking through the series is an engrossing and visceral experience that encompasses joy, terror, hope, and despair—the full spectrum of a people’s journey.
The series begins with the image of a train station crowded with men, women, and children pressing toward the platform entrances, each with the name of a city above it: New York, Chicago, St. Louis. As the exhibit illustrates with a helpful timeline, those cities were among the major destinations for the migrants, and their African American populations grew exponentially as the century wore on. (Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh were among the other cities that drew the most migrants.)
With his bold, graphic style, the artist deftly captures the poverty, crop failures, and injustices that drove people to move, sometimes leaving family behind forever in the process. In one of the most devastating images, a figure sits hunched on a rock next to a noose hanging from a bare branch. The caption reads, “Another cause was lynching. It was found that where there had been a lynching, the people who were reluctant to leave at first left immediately after this.”
Lawrence also documents the economic forces in the North that were driving the migration: factory owners in industries such as steel needed labor and saw African Americans in the South as the nation’s last great untapped source of workers. Recruiters known as “labor agents” came down South to convince African Americans to move, sometimes to break strikes.
While many of the paintings depict the hopeful excitement of those who chose to uproot themselves, and the prosperity and educational opportunity many of them found, Lawrence also records the difficulties and prejudice they encountered when they reached their destinations. He paints works that illustrate crowded living conditions, race riots (including one in East St. Louis), segregation, and the scorn the rural migrants encountered from some other African Americans who had lived in the North for longer. He paints, too, the people left behind, expertly conjuring their loneliness and their indecision about taking such a radical step out of the Southern farmland and into the industrial, urban North.
In addition to the Migration Series, the show includes several other works by Lawrence, paintings in which he captures Harlem street scenes as well as his impressions of the South, where he traveled in the late 1940s. There’s also a section exploring the musical innovation that bubbled up during the period, and a film of Billie Holiday performing her song “Strange Fruit” plays on a screen in one room, haunting the show.
Lawrence has a singular talent for creating images that are at once deceptively simple and deeply resonant, and his pacing of the story he tells is as propulsive as the bebop style of jazz that was just beginning to emerge as he painted. The stark beauty and compelling narrative arc of the Migration Series remain as powerful today as when the pictures were first exhibited. And in the era of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the history they bring to life—of a people striving for a better life, despite violence, prejudice, and injustice—seems as relevant as ever.
“One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series” is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through September 7.